Stuart Harrison


‘Celebrating Civicness in Modern Architectural Language through Arcading’



This paper will examine how selected architects attempted to present a civic quality in modernist public buildings, focusing on the technique of figuring architectural language through the arch and arcade. The paper will discuss selected public projects designed at the same time in the post-war period by Frank Lloyd Wright (Marin County Civic Center, 1957-70), Oscar Niemeyer (Ministry of Justice in Brasilia, 1957) and locally Roy Grounds (Academy of Sciences in Canberra, 1957-59). The work of Louis Kahn will also come under review. The projects are by architects who worked simultaneously across the world, and whose careers have ultimately been regarded as operating on the edge of Modernist dogma, and addressed the task of making the civic role of a building evident.



Grounds used the referential device of the arch, and the Modern aspirations of abstraction and lightness are also rejected in the massive quality of many of Grounds’ later projects, including the Academy of Sciences. Kahn’s use of arched forms is argued as part of a lineage that passes to Venturi & Scott-Brown and the architectural discourse of Post-Modernism. Both Wright and Niemeyer combine repetition and formal manipulation of the arch to produce civic buildings that are both modern and grounded within traditional forms of the civic.



This discussion is part of wider research into the nature of the civic in architecture and its application in current environments.



Roy Grounds, Academy of Sciences, Canberra, 1959

Photography by Stuart Harrison


Oscar Niemeyer, Ministry of Justice, Brasilia, 1957)

Photography by Marcus White, used with permission






This paper attempts to demonstrate that several Modern architects addressed the issue of distinguishing civic or public buildings at the same period in the mid to late 1950s using similar method of employing arch-based arcades. Both arches and arcades will discussed in this paper, and an arch is referred to as commonly known but not commonly used (in the 1950s) architectural device, a readable figure. An arcade as discussed here is formed through the repetition of arches, typically as part of the façade of a building.



It is generally accepted that Modernism, as an international movement, moved away from associative forms of typology and decoration to a language of abstraction and universality, that had its roots in a social vision for humanity, where status or ability to read bourgeois semantic systems would not be required. It is the proposition of this paper that several modern architects simultaneously confronted the issue of making the function of civic buildings expressed. The civic here is seen as the collective desire to value the instruments of public and urban life.



This paper examines several buildings designed at a similar time, that of the late 1950s. At this time, following the Second World War, modernism had become the principal mode of operation for Architecture, exhibiting qualities such as expression of function, universal language without decoration and associative motifs. It is the proposition of this paper that certain architects saw this mode as limited and sort an architectural language to distinguish civic buildings – so that in universalising modern city, they would be read as different to other new buildings. The arch based arcade is developed by these architects as the system of readable architectural language as been collapsed to historicism by the massive success of architectural Modernism.



These architects’ identification of a gap in architectural modernism is later addressed widely in the movement known as Post-Modernism, where the dogma of modernism is inverted in an attempt to address the perceived failures of identification of Modern buildings. This return to ideas such as typology and style was then in turn widely rejected as both kitsch and lacking in substance. The following architectural movements that operate to this day did not provide an alternative to this absence within modernism, and this gap remains. The using of the referential arch introduced into modernism by the architects in this is still used by some architectural practices to address the same concerns.



Louis Kahn (1901-1974) spent almost his entire career at the task of developing an appropriate architectural language for community and public buildings, as it documented by Sarah Williams Goldhagen in her book Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism. Moving from an expression of technology and the organic to form and association, Kahn employs simplified historic devices such as the arch to this aim. Furthermore, he develops the circular ‘cut-out’ as distinctive development on the arch to become a new type, whilst maintaining a quality of abstraction and purity. Kahn’s use of traditional arch forms is demonstrated in projects such as the Kimball Art Museum (1973), but Kahn begins to develop an interest in the referential device of the arch in 1957 when reworking his (Trenton) Jewish Community Center project[1], as is extensively documented by Goldhagen,


Kahn, acknowledging this new direction, added Roman arches to the now brick façade which coincided with the concrete beams that supported the gymnasium roof (during this period he was also considering arched windows for the Richards Medical Center).[2]


Kahn’s use of arches and circular cut-outs is gradually introduced in his work as he moved away from an organic and technology inspired language. By 1959 Kahn’s movement away from this has become clear, as Goldhagen states;


For Kahn, modern buildings that echoed historical ones bound a viewer to a greater community of past users: ‘modern space is really not different from Renaissance space,’ he said in 1959. ‘We still want domes, we still want walls, we still want arches, arcades, and loggias of all kinds.’ In embracing architectural precedents, Kahn reshaped his architectural language to reinforce the social bonds that make a community cohere.[3]


Goldhagen locates a critical interest in the mid-fifties in historicism, particularly in the classical; “Edward Durrell Stone, and Yamaskai followed (Philip) Johnson’s lead, producing in the middle of the decade a mini-revival of classicism, or formalism”[4] Goldhagen’s book revisits accepted ideas about Kahn, particular that he was a solitary figure of individual genius, and suggests he was continually influenced by other figures as he became increasing involved in teaching, including students Charles Moore and Robert Venturi - who he assessed in 1950.


The practice of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) is well documented, but his late work, normally associated with the Guggenheim Museum in New York, showed a change of direction. The Marin County Civic Center (1957-70), California, is the clearest built example of the shift in imagery and language, as Wright is called upon to design a civic component of the expanding post-war American city. Completed in two stages, both after his death, Marin County Civic Center demonstrates an allusion to the repetitive arches of a Roman viaduct. Twenty minutes after arriving at the site, Wright said to his associate Aaron Green, “I’ll bridge these hills with graceful arches.”[5]



The use of the arch had occurred before in Wright’s work - the V. C. Morris Store, San Francisco (1948) used a single Syrian derived arch. Repetition of arches represents a shift, and can be seen to a lesser extent in the Wauwatosa Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church scheme that ran concurrently to Marin County, the design of which commenced one year earlier in 1956. The Monona Terrace Civic Center in Madison, Wisconsin was commenced by Wright in 1938 and remarkably not built until 1997. Wright revises the scheme in 1957[6]  (as he starts the design of Marin County) and the Monona Terrace project (originally known as Orin Terraces) begins to develop an arching façade treatment as the project mutates from a large bridge-like series of terraces in 1938 with three large domes into a singular building with a curved front with grand arches. These arches, like those of the Greek Orthodox Church form the boundary between inside and outside, rather than an arcade. Importantly, the Monona project revisions represent Wrights’ evolved approach to designing a civic centre.



At Marin County, the allusion to a load bearing Roman viaduct or aqueduct is perhaps informed partially by the site and generally large-scale nature of the project - to which a bridge is an analogy. The system of arches used on Marin County exhibits an underlying classical vertical system (of decreasing weight with height), where the larger spanning arches occupy the lower levels, and then decrease in size up the façade. The top series of arches are continuous to form circular profiles, in a point of departure from the illusion to a Roman viaduct.



Wright’s operations on these arches however reveal a different quality that moves them away from the load bearing traditional arch, for the main body of arches are not structural and are supported out from the main concrete construction. This is in a manner similar to a contemporary curtain wall system and Wright makes no attempt to suggest that they are thick - built as a stucco cladding on a steel frame. In addition the junction between the arches is almost point-like. Here the arches seem to hang from the building, inverting the structural logic of the Roman viaduct.  This subversion of a Roman series of arches and lightness of the system explains the building’s inclusion in two mainstream science fiction films as a building of the future.[7]



Detractors of Wright’s late work suggest his remoteness to the project and large practice workload account for the thinness of the building and its lack of detail, unlike in his early work. Robert McCarther is typical in this view:


Like many of Wright’s late works, this design for the Marin County Civic Center seems to have developed without any significant constraints, limitations or even goals, and is merely an exercise in unfettered imagination.[8]


The Marin County Civic Center was one of Wright’s few built civic projects for a government. Despite his enormous body of work, Wright was principally an architect for private clients, both houses and businesses. Another account for Wright’s change of direction in this late work is possibly a search for a way to demonstrate the civic; rather than a lack of interest, recycling or lack of time as suggested by McCarther[9]. In addition, the project was designed and built on a tight budget.



By evacuating the structural role of the arches and expressing this, they became a screen and signaling device, identifying the civic function of the centre. In order for this to be successfully communicated, residents would need to decode arches, particularly in a serialised form as denoting of building of some civic nature. Prior to the Marin County’s occupation of the Wright building, the County administration was principally located within the simple Classical temple fronted San Rafael Court House.[10] Historic images of San Rafael reveal the only linear buildings with repeating elements were those for railways. Given that the Marin County Civic Center is a bent (at the dome) linear building that buries itself into the two hills of site, it has a continuous quality. It is impossible to say whether the population of Marin County was immediately aware of the building’s purpose – there is little doubt as to whether the building was distinguished from its surroundings however.



In 1893 Wright entered the Milwaukee Library Competition (his closest previous project of this type), with an symmetrically composed classical scheme, featuring a central dome above a temple portico. The Marin building can be read as a radical reworking of this scheme, with dome in the middle. Elements of association and repetition are used in both schemes, to give them a grandness of vision that is transferable from the pre-modern to the modern. Wright does not develop a modern architectural language for the civic until 1957.



Prior to Oscar Niemeyer’s (1906-) commencement on the government buildings at Brasilia, his use of arch forms, or curved profiles generally in elevation was restricted to the Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi (curving elements were frequently used in plan). The chapel is part of a complex of buildings (1942-43) for a residential development at Pampulha, Belo Horizonte, in the Brazilian State of Minas Gerais. The chapel is the most well known of the suite, which also includes a casino (now a museum), restaurant, and a yacht club all on an artificial lake. The well known series of four ground touching vaults on the mural façade creates an asymmetrical configuration of reinforced concrete shells. Here, Niemeyer uses arching forms to distinguish the chapel from the other buildings he designed in the suite, suggesting a principle where buildings of more social significance are apparent. This reflects the chapel as the most civic building of this collection. Niemeyer is Jewish by birth but not religious, and the chapel after completion was not blessed by the Catholic Church[11], assumedly due to its failure to appear as a church building. The buildings’ fame is often attributed to its innovative use of concrete, “The Church of St Francis is the birthplace of proper Brazilian Architecture. With its self-supporting vaulting of varying dimensions, it makes use of the structural and sculptural potential of concrete.”[12]



The use of curves in Niemeyer’s work is often attributed to either landscape, or by Niemeyer himself as natural forms such as the profile of the human body[13]. The issue of type is often not engaged with. The other buildings at Pampulha use curves in plan, but not in elevation. The residential landscape by the lake is not overtly undulating, therefore not establishing a connection of the arching roofline of the chapel to the invented landscape.



The commission for the new Brazilian capital of Brasilia was a direct result of the Pampulha project, through Juscelino Kubitschek who was the Governor of Minas Gerais and had initiated Pampulha, and then Brasilia after his election as President of Brazil in 1956. Soon after Niemeyer commenced the design of a suite of governmental buildings - where a system of typological hierarchy in architectural language is further developed.



Some indication of Niemeyer’s adherence to an appropriate system of hierarchical expression can be read through a statement related to monumentality, “I have never been afraid of monumentality when a corresponding theme justifies it”[14] Justification is key in this statement, making clear Niemeyer considers appropriateness in his work; that not all buildings should be as expressive as others. In this way, the work can be seen to fall into a system of decorum.[15]



The collection of buildings around the eastern end of Brasilia’s Monumental Axis form the key components of Government. In the centre is the twin domed Congresso (Parliament), immediately behind (to the east) at to each side is the Palacio do Planalto (Executive Branch) and the Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Court) – with the Plaza of the Three Powers between these three. In front (west) of the Congresso and also to each side and opposite each other are Palacio Itamaraty (Foreign Affairs) and the Ministry of Justice. Valerie Fraser discusses how the Itamaraty Palace and Justice Ministry relate to the other pair of buildings on the other side of the Congresso,


These two ministries are again ‘palaces’, like the Planalto and Supreme Court beyond. Each is enclosed with a modern version of a classical peristyle, this time with the colonnades the right way up, but having a more traditional type, Niemeyer then backs off again: the structures are not faced in classical marble but left as explicitly modern coarse-textured concrete.[16]


In addition, the ministry buildings further west and out from the Congresso after Ministry of Justice and Itamaraty Palace become simple vertically louvered slab blocks, with no arcading or colonnading; and are general government administration. The Brasilia buildings are essentially glazed boxes with some form of treatment wrapping around them.



Fraser suggests these two buildings are less radical in their operations on the traditional arcaded form than the Planalto and Supreme Court, where Niemeyer develops an inverted and double arch system, running perpendicular to the main facades. The Palacio da Alvorada (‘Palace of the Dawn’ – the Presidential Residence) departs from a traditional reading the most - by inverting the arcade as readable in elevation. This building is not accessible to the public and is removed from the main concentration of public buildings. The materiality of Alvorada Palace is white painted concrete, rather than the marble facing of Planalto Palace and the Supreme Court. In addition Niemeyer makes the reading of the concrete arches of Alvorada Palace as thin as possible, this coupled with the whiteness of the arches suggests them as far more delicate than the other more robust buildings directly around the Congresso. The overall scale of this building is lower than the others, perhaps akin to a large villa (suiting a residence). Its placement off the ordering armature of the Monumental Axis also plays down its role as an instrument of government. The thinning of the edges that assist in achieving this lightness is possible with concrete as the exterior finish – to clad this is stone would involve complex faceting of the material. The arches that are stone clad for the Planalto Palace and Supreme Court are by the same logic flat, or two-dimensional.



The Ministry of Justice, although equal with the Itamaraty Palace across from it in the wider system, deviates from Itamaraty Palace’s regularity considerably. The key operation to the arch on this building is the asymmetrical arch system on the southern (axis facing) façade. These half arches repeat in the same direction across this facade, like a giant order with the wall set back behind them. The directional nature of these arches is revealing, going against the flow of the traffic on the road in front, but gesturing toward the Congresso and Plaza. Interestingly, the opposite north façade, with the same bay spacing, employs a more traditional fully rounded arch, registering its distance away from the Congresso and Monumental Axis. Indeed, all four facades of the Ministry of Justice are different – the eastern façade is a series of even simple vertical blade columns, whereas the western façade is a dense varying cluster of the same blade columns, at differing spaces. Assumedly this dense array is to block harsh western sun hitting the glazed wall – a consideration not addressed on Itamaraty Palace opposite. A photograph of this façade from the Birkhauser book on Niemeyer shows the western façade of Itamaraty Palace with curtains drawn and several wall air-conditioners installed in the glazed wall.[17] It seems that the built design of Itamaraty Palace is a redesign, whereas the Ministry of Justice is not.[18] Different dates for both buildings make it hard to suggest if the design of one affected the design of the other, or if they had originally intended to be different.



Justin Read speculates on the use of arching in the buildings at Brasilia;


Brasília, we should recall, was built for a nation that had not fully “modernized” by the time the capital opened in 1960; at the same time, it is precisely the urge to modernize that produced a city that seemed far more “modern” than any other at the time, either in the third world or the first. Paradoxically, much of the sense of modernity surrounding it stems from Niemeyer’s employment of “surreal” curved forms—to produce the sense that something “new” had been built unlike anything built before.[19]



Fraser cites Niemeyer to establish the connection with arch as a historic device;


I rejoice in realizing that these forms bestowed individuality and originality upon the Palaces in their modest way and (and this I deem important) establish a link with the architecture of colonial Brazil.[20]


Niemeyer used the arch as an associative device, and as such recognised the limitations of the version of modernism that adheres to abstraction as universal social device. Niemeyer, as a dedicated communist, could be no closer to the desire for an open society that is as far from the elitism of the pre-independent and pre-20th Century world as possible. However, a system of hierarchical architectural language is employed using new concrete technology. The differences in use depending on building type indicates Niemeyer was not making architecture as fluid and expressive as possible in every case, that buildings demonstrate their place in a hierarchy.



Niemeyer’s work came to Australia through the Architectural Review and via the book Brazil Builds, Architecture new and old, 1652-1942 by Phillip Goodwin. This accompanied the Brazil Builds MOMA exhibition in 1943, and came to Australia toward the end of Second World War. James Birrell, studying at Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT) at this time recalls these arrivals in Australia after the War.[21] Birrell transferred studies to the University of Melbourne, where he studied under Roy Grounds, Robin Boyd and other well-known Melbourne architectural figures. The influence of Niemeyer and Roy Grounds (1905-1981) is clear within Birrell’s work and it is possible that Niemeyer’s work came to Grounds in the post-war period.



The Academy of Sciences in Canberra was Grounds’ first major commission and was designed in 1957 and completed in 1959.[22] Grounds’ biggest works before this were multi-residential flats, and this project represented a major typological leap for Grounds, designing a new institutional building. The pure low-slung dome building shows a simultaneous development with the domic forms of the Congresso in Brasilia, the design of which commenced sometime between 1956 and 1958. Niemeyer’s use of arcades is restricted to orthogonal buildings, whereas Grounds is able to produce an arcaded edge to the base of the copper clad concrete dome. Like Niemeyer’s Ministry of Justice and Itamaraty Palace, Grounds uses water around the perimeter of the building, in an interaction with the arcade. For the Academy of Sciences this also provides a water collection point from the copper roof and animates reflected light onto the vertical perimeter glass wall and into the spaces inside. The continuous circular arcade opens and closes to the surroundings with the flow of the complex curved arch, the depth of which changes in relation to the user. As a result, there is a changing quality of enclosure around the edge. This, coupled the reflective consequences of water and glass, make this arcade an unexpectedly dynamic and public space, given the purity and mass of the form.



The Academy of Sciences has been dubbed for many years the ‘Martian Embassy’[23], which tells of the building’s science fiction-like qualities, similar to that of the Marin County Civic Center. Grounds’ design was selected from a competition process as the most radical[24]. At the same time it utilises traditional forms such as the arch, symmetry and moat. Like Niemeyer’s public buildings in Brasilia, the effect of deep arcades and colonnades around the building is the creation of deep shadowed facades, also suggesting a difference from generic building types.



The interest in pure geometry had been escalating in Grounds’ work, but extends back to the Round (Henty) House (1950). Conrad Hamann suggests that the Academy of Sciences draws from Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Auditorium (1950-55) at MIT, being also a “large scale geometric work”[25] which Grounds is believed to have visited. Precedent for Grounds’ use of arches, or arcades, is not immediately apparent, especially given the simultaneous nature of the Niemeyer work in Brasilia. The Academy represents Grounds’ first use of the arch, and can be seen as a prototype to the monumental National Gallery of Victoria completed in 1968. Normally regarded as a massive enlargement of Grounds’ experimental own house in Hill Street, Toorak, Melbourne (1952-53), the National Gallery is different to this house via the use of the central arch (forming a single arch arcade), rather than conventional doorway on the house. The common denominator between Academy of Sciences and National Gallery, as public buildings, is the use of an archway – suggesting Grounds is using it as a civic device.



The reworking of the arch and arcade is a strategy that that does not involve pure invention in architectural language, but operations and reconfiguration of an existing language still alive in the consciousness of often classically trained architects. For a general population that sees civic buildings as pre-modern, and modern architecture as the style of reconstruction - mass housing, industry and commerce; the arch can connote the civic. This proposition, whether true or not, seems to be the assumption by which the featured architects in this paper rely on for design of these institutional and civic projects. The arch however in the pre-modern period was not an exceptional device, and featured on many types of buildings. Only with the onslaught of Modernism does the arch gain this meaning of connoting the civic as it is no longer widely used in either civic or utilitarian buildings.



The projects examined in this paper use repeating arches, often to form arcades rather than singular arch openings in studied civic projects. Repetition is a key tenet of modernism, as is the use of new materials and technologies. The projects these Architects develop around 1957 all show a major departure from the universality and non-referential qualities of the ‘International Style’ or Modernism generally[26], as they all attempt to distinguish their new civic buildings from the postwar city that is becoming dominated by Modernism itself, as it became the default architectural style.


[1] Sarah Williams Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2001, p129

[2] Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, p131

[3] Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, p128

[4] Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, p124

[5] Aaron Green, An Architecture for Democracy: Frank Lloyd Wright The Marin County Civic Center, Walsworth Press, Marceline, Missouri, 1990, p 21.

[6] Donald W. Hoppen, The Seven Ages of Frank Lloyd Wright, Dover, Mineola NY, 1993

[7] In both George Lucas’ early film THX-1138 (1971) and Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997) the centre is filmed as a futuristic building.

[8] Robert McCarther, Frank Lloyd Wright, Phaidon, London, 1999, pp. 325

[9] McCarther, Frank Lloyd Wright, p. 325

[10] Established from and thanks to Laurie Thompson from the Marin County Library. The Court House was destroyed by fire in 1971. Local Government in the US is linked with the judicatory, hence the accommodation of the county administration within the court house, and the Hall of Justice and Administration wings being the two ‘arms’ of the Wright scheme, pivoting out from the domed library.

[11] Established from an internet search,

[12] Lauro Cavalcanti, ‘Oscar Niemeyer and Brazilian Modernism’, Oscar Niemeyer – A Legend of Modernism, Birkhauser, Basel, 2003, p34

[13] Andreas, Paul, ‘Oscar Niemeyer and Landscape’, Oscar Niemeyer – A Legend of Modernism, Birkhauser, Basel, 2003, p78

[14] Niemeyer, Oscar, ‘My Architecture’, Oscar Niemeyer – A Legend of Modernism, Birkhauser, Basel, 2003, p131

[15] P. Kohane and M Hill, ‘The eclipse of a commonplace idea: decorum in architectural theory’, Architectural Research Quarterly, vol.5, no.1, 2001

[16] Valerie Fraser, Building the New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture of Latin America 1930-1960, Verso, London, 2000, p.232

[17] The Ministry of Justice can be seen in background of this image, showing the relationship between the two buildings, and the void of the Monumental Axis in between. This photograph is inexplicably printed in reverse in this book on pages 90 and 91 of Oscar Niemeyer – A Legend of Modernism, Birkhauser, Basel, 2003.

[18] Andreas and Flagge, (Oscar Niemeyer – A Legend of Modernism) date both projects to 1962, but list a first design of Itamaraty Palace to 1960, suggesting both designs as built were made at the same time in 1960. Niemeyer’s website ( however dates the design of the Ministry of Justice in 1957 and Itamaraty Palace to 1962. Other texts provide other dates.

[19] Justin Reed, ‘Alternative Functions: Oscar Niemeyer and the Poetics of Modernity’ in Modernism / Modernity, Vol 12, Number 2, John Hopkins University Press, 2005, p.266

[20] Fraser, Building the New World, p.219

[21] In a recent interview with the author, June 2005

[22] Conrad Hamann, ‘Roy Grounds 1905-, Frederick Romberg 1913- and Robin Boyd 1919-1971’ in Architects of Australia, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1981

[23] Often cited as such, Dr. Doug Evans has used the term -

[24] From The Dome: The story of its construction by the Academy of Sciences, Canberra, located on its website -

[25] Hamann, Roy Grounds 1905-, Frederick Romberg 1913- and Robin Boyd 1919-1971’ p138

[26] Examples of modern architects using arches is rare before the mid 1950s, one notable exception being the Palacio de la Civilización Italiana (G. Guerrini, E.B. La Padula, M. Romano, 1938), brought to the world’s attention as part of the EUR (Exposición Universal de Roma) in 1942. This notable structure features a regular array of simple arch opens in a white rectangular prism, and recalls directly the Italian classical tradition.